Psalm 137:1


This plaintive ode is one of the most charming compositions in the whole Book of Psalms for its poetic power. If it were not inspired it would nevertheless occupy a high place in poesy, especially the former portion of it, which is tender and patriotic to the highest degree. In the later verses ( Psalms 137:7-9 ), we have utterances of burning indignation against the chief adversaries of Israel, -- an indignation as righteous as it was fervent. Let those find fault with it who have never seen their temple burned, their city ruined, their wives ravished, and after children slain; they might not, perhaps, be quite so velvet mouthed if they had suffered after this fashion. It is one thing to talk of the bitter feeling which moved captive Israelites in Babylon, and quite another thing to be captives ourselves under a savage and remorseless power, which knew not how to show mercy, but delighted in barbarities to the defenceless. The song is such as might fitly be sung in the Jews' wailing place. It is a fruit of the Captivity in Babylon, and often has it furnished expression for sorrows which else had been unutterable. It is an opalesque Psalm within whose mild radiance there glows afire which strikes the beholder with wonder.


Verse 1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Water courses were abundant in Babylon, wherein were not only natural streams but artificial canals: it was place of broad rivers and streams. Glad to be away from the noisy streets, the captives sought the river side, where the flow of the waters seemed to be in sympathy with their tears. It was some slight comfort to be out of the crowd, and to have a little breathing room, and therefore they sat down, as if to rest a while and solace themselves in their sorrow. In little groups they sat down and made common lamentation, mingling their memories and their tears. The rivers were well enough, but, alas, they were the rivers of Babylon, and the ground whereon the sons of Israel sat was foreign soil, and therefore they wept. Those who came to interrupt their quiet were citizens of the destroying city, and their company was not desired. Everything reminded Israel of her banishment from the holy city, her servitude beneath the shadow of the temple of Bel, her helplessness under a cruel enemy; and therefore her sons and daughters sat down in sorrow,

Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Nothing else could have subdued their brave spirits; but the remembrance of the temple of their God, the palace of their king, and the centre of their national life, quite broke them down. Destruction had swept down all their delights, and therefore they wept -- the strong men wept, the sweet singers wept! They did not weep when they remembered the cruelties of Babylon; the memory of fierce oppression dried their tears and made their hearts burn with wrath: but when the beloved city of their solemnities came into their minds they could not refrain from floods of tears. Even thus do true believers mourn when they see the church despoiled, and find themselves unable to succour her: we could bear anything better than this. In these our times the Babylon of error ravages the city of God, and the hearts of the faithful are grievously wounded as they see truth fallen in the streets, and unbelief rampant among the professed servants of the Lord. We bear our protests, but they appear to be in vain; the multitude are mad upon their idols. Be it ours to weep in secret for the hurt of our Zion: it is the least thing we can do; perhaps in its result it may prove to be the best thing we can do. Be it ours also to sit down and deeply consider what is to be done. Be it ours, in any case, to keep upon our mind and heart the memory of the church of God which is so dear to us. The frivolous may forget, but Zion is graven on our hearts, and her prosperity is our chief desire.


Whole Psalm. Observe that this very Psalm in which the question is asked, "How can we sing?" is itself a song, one of the Lord's songs, still. Nothing can be more sad, more desponding. It speaks of weeping in the remembrance of Zion; it speaks of harps hung upon the willows by exiles who have no heart to use them; and yet the very telling of these sorrows, of this incapacity for song, is a song still. We chant it in our congregations now, hundreds and thousands of years after its composition, as one of the Church's melodies, as one of the Lord's songs. It gives us a striking example of the variety, of the versatility of worship, even in that department which might seem to be all joyous, all praise. The very refusal to sing may be itself a song. Any real utterance of good thoughts, whether they be thoughts of gladness or thoughts of sorrow, may be a true hymn, a true melody for the congregation, even though it may not breathe at every moment the very thought of all the worshippers. "How shall we sing?" is itself a permanent hymn, an inspired song, for all the churches. --C. J. Vaughan.

Whole Psalm. This Psalm is composed of two parts. The first is, an heavy complaint of the church, unto Psalms 137:7 . The other is an heavy imprecation and a prophetical denunciation against the enemies of the church, unto the end of the Psalm. -- Robert Rollock.

Whole Psalm. What a wonderful mixture is the Psalm of soft melancholy and fiery patriotism! The hand which wrote it must have known how to smite sharply with the sword, as well as how to tune the harp. The words are burning words of a heart breathing undying love to his country, undying hate to his foe. The poet is indeed

"Dower'd with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love."

--J. J. Stewart Perowne.

Whole Psalm. Several of the Psalms obviously refer to the time of the Babylonian captivity ... The captives' mournful sentiments of pensive melancholy and weary longing during its long and weary continuance constitute the burden of the hundred and thirty- seventh. It was probably written by some gifted captive Levite at the time. Some suppose it to have been composed by Jeremiah, the prophet of tears, and sent to his countrymen in the land of their exile, in order to awaken fond memories of the past and sustain a lively hope for the future; and certainly the ode is worthy even of his pen, for it is one of the sweetest, most plaintive, and exquisitely beautiful elegies in any language. It is full of heart melting, tear bringing pathos. The moaning of the captive, the wailing of the exile, and the sighing of the saints are heard in every line. --W. Ormiston, in "The Study," 1874.

Whole Psalm. Here,

  1. The melancholy captives cannot enjoy themselves, Psalms 137:1-2 .
  2. They cannot humour their proud oppressors, Psalms 137:3-4 .
  3. They cannot forget Jerusalem, Psalms 137:5-6 .
  4. They cannot forget Edom and Babylon, Psalms 137:7-9 . --Matthew Henry.

Verse 1. By the rivers of Babylon. The canals of Babylon itself, probably (comp. Psalms 137:2 .) --William Kay.

Verse 1. By the rivers. Euphrates, Tigris, Chaboras, etc., and the canals which intersected the country. The exiles would naturally resort to the banks of the streams as shady, cool and retired spots, where they could indulge in their sorrowful remembrances. The prophets of the exile saw their visions by the river. Ezekiel 1:1 Daniel 8:2 10:4. -- "Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review", 1848.

Verse 1. By the rivers. The bank of a river, like the seashore, is a favourite place of sojourn of those whom deep grief drives forth from the bustle of men into solitude. The boundary line of the river gives to solitude a safe back; the monotonous splashing of the waves keeps up the dull, melancholy alternation of thoughts and feelings; and at the same time the sight of the cool, fresh water exercises a soothing influence upon the consuming fever within the heart. --Franz Delitzsch.

Verse 1. By the rivers. The peculiar reason for the children of Israel being represented as sitting at the streams is the weeping. An internal reference of the weeping to the streams, must therefore have been what gave rise to the representation of the sitting. Nor is this reference difficult to be discovered. All languages know of brooks, or streams of tears, compare in Scripture, Lamentations 2:18 ; "Let tears run down like a river day and night"; La 3:48; also Job 28:11 , where inversely the gushing of the floods is called weeping (Marg.). The children of Israel placed themselves beside the streams of Babel because they saw in them the image and symbol of their floods of tears. --E. W. Hengstenberg.

Verse 1. We sat down. Among the poets, sitting on the ground is a mark of misery or captivity.

Multos ilia dies incomtis moesta capillis
Sederat. -- Propertius.
With locks unkempt, mournful, for many days
She sat.
O utinam ante tuos sedeam captiva penates. -- Propertius.
O might I sit a captive at thy gate!

You have the same posture in an old coin that celebrates a victory of Lucius Verus over the Parthians.

We find Judea on several coins of Vespasian and Titus in the posture that denotes sorrow and captivity. --From Joseph Addison's Dialogues on Medals.

Verse 1. Sat down implies that the burst of grief was a long one, and also that it was looked on by the captives as some relaxation and repose. --Chrysostom.

Verse 1. We wept when we remembered Zion. A godly man lays to heart the miseries of the church. I have read of certain trees, whose leaves if cut or touched, the other leaves contract and shrink up themselves, and for a space hang down their heads: such a spiritual sympathy is there among Christians; when other parts of God's church suffer, they feel themselves, as it were, touched in their own persons. Ambrose reports, that when Theodosius was sick unto death, he was more troubled about the church of God than about his own sickness. When Aeneas would have saved Anchises' life, saith he, "Far be it from me that I should desire to live when Troy is buried in its ruins." There are in music two unisons; if you strike one, you shall perceive the other to stir, as if it were affected: when the Lord strikes others a godly heart is deeply affected, Isaiah 16:11 : "My bowels shall sound like an harp." Though it be well with a child of God in his own particular, and he dwells in an house of cedar, yet he grieves to see it go ill with the public. Queen Esther enjoyed the king's favour, and all the delights of the court, yet when a bloody warrant was signed for the death of the Jews she mourns and fasts, and ventures her own life to save theirs. --Thomas Watson.

Verse 1. For Sion only they wept, unlike many who weep with the weeping and rejoice with the joy of Babylon, because their whole interests and affections are bound up in the things of this world. --Augustine.

Verse 1. Let us weep, because in this life we are forced to sit by the waters of Babylon, and are yet strangers and as it were banished and barred from being satisfied with the pleasures of that river which gladdens the city of God. Alas, if we did consider that our country were heaven, and did apprehend this place here below to be our prison, or place of banishment, the least absence from our country would draw tears from our eyes and sighs from our hearts, with David ( Psalms 120:5 ): "Woe is me that I sojourn in Mesech, and am constrained to dwell in the tents of Kedar."

Do you remember how the Jews behaved themselves in the time of their exile and captivity, while they sat by the rivers and waters of Babylon! They wept, would not be comforted; hanged up their harps and instruments. What are the waters of Babylon but the pleasures and delights of the world, the waters of confusion, as the word signifies! Now when the people of God sit by them, that is to say, do not carelessly, but deliberately, with a settled consideration, see them slide by and pass away, and compare them with Sion, that is to say, with the inconceivable rivers of pleasure, which are permanent in the heavenly Jerusalem; how can they choose but weep, when they see themselves sitting by the one, and sojourning from the other! And it is worthy your observing, that notwithstanding the Jews had many causes of tears, the Chaldeans had robbed them of their goods, honours, countries, liberty, parents, children, friends: the chief thing, for all this, that they mourn for is their absence from Sion, -- "We wept when we remembered thee, O Sion" -- for their absence from Jerusalem. What should we then do for our absence from another manner of Jerusalem! Theirs was an earthly, old, robbed, spoiled, burned, sacked Jerusalem; ours a heavenly, new one, into which no arrow can be shot, no noise of the drum heard, nor sound of the trumpet, nor calling unto battle: who would not then weep, to be absent from thence! --Walter Balcanqual, in "A Sermon Preached at St. Maries Spittle", 1623.

Verse 1. We remembered Zion. It necessarily implies they had forgot, else how could they now remember! In their peace and plenty the had but little regard of Zion then. --John Whincop, in a Sermon entitled, "Israel's Tears for Distressed Zion", 1645.

Verse 1. Nothing could present a more striking contrast to their native country than the region into which the Hebrews were transplanted. Instead of their irregular and picturesque mountain city, crowning its unequal heights, and looking down into its deep and precipitous ravines, through one of which a scanty stream wound along, they entered the vast, square, and level city of Babylon, occupying both sides of the broad Euphrates; while all around spread immense plains, which were intersected by long straight canals, bordered by rows of willows. How unlike their national temple -- a small but highly finished and richly adorned fabric, standing in the midst of its courts on the brow of a lofty precipice -- the colossal temple of the Chaldean Bel, rising from the plain, with its eight stupendous stories or towers, one above the other, to the perpendicular height of a furlong! The palace of the Babylonian kings was more than twice the size of their whole city; it covered eight miles, with its hanging gardens built on arched terraces, each rising above the other, and rich in all the luxuriance of artificial cultivation. How different from the sunny cliffs of their own land, where the olive and the vine grew spontaneously, and the cool, shady, and secluded valleys, where they could always find shelter from the heat of the burning noon! No wonder then that, in the pathetic words of their own hymn, "by the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept, when they remembered thee, O Zion." Of their general treatment as captives we know little. The Psalm above quoted seems to intimate that the Babylonians had taste enough to appreciate the poetical and musical talent of the exiles, and that they were summoned occasionally to amuse the banquets of their masters, though it was much against their will that they sang the songs of Zion in a strange land. In general it seems that the Jewish exiles were allowed to dwell together in considerable bodies, not sold as household or personal or praedial slaves, at least not those of the better order of whom the Captivity chiefly consisted. They were colonists rather than captives, and became by degrees possessed of considerable property. They had taken the advice of the prophet Jeremiah (who gave them no hopes of speedy return to their homes): they had built houses, planted gardens, married and brought up children, submitted themselves as peaceful subjects to the local authorities: all which implies a certain freedom, a certain degree of prosperity and comfort. They had free enjoyment of their religion, such at least as adhered faithfully to their belief in Jehovah. We hear of no special and general religious persecution. -- Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868), in "The History of the Jews."

Verse 1. They sat in silence; they remembered in silence; they wept in silence. --J. W. Burgon.

Verse 1-6. Israel was a typical people.

  1. They were typical of God's church in all ages of the world. And,
  2. They were typical of the soul of every individual believer.

This Psalm is composed for Israel in her captivity. Let us go over it, taking its typical meaning.

  1. When a believer is in captivity he has a sorrowful remembrance of Zion. So it was with God's ancient people: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion" ( Psalms 137:1 ). In the last chapter of 2 Chronicles 36:14-20 , we find the melancholy tale of Judah's captivity. Many of their friends had been slain by the sword -- the house of God was burned -- the walls of Jerusalem were broken down -- and they themselves were captives in a foreign land. No wonder that they sat down and wept when they remembered Zion.

So it is often with the believer when led captive by sin -- he sits down and weeps when he remembers Zion. Zion is the place where God makes himself known. When a poor awakened sinner is brought to know the Saviour, and to enter through the rent veil into the holiest of all, then he becomes one of the people of Zion: "A day in thy courts is better than a thousand." He dwells in Zion; and the people that dwell therein are forgiven their iniquity. But when a believer falls into sin he falls into darkness -- he is carried a captive away from Zion. No more does he find entrance within the veil; no more is he glad when they say to him, "Let us go up to the house of the Lord." He sits down and weeps when he remembers Zion.

  1. The world derides the believer in his captivity. So it was with ancient Israel. The Chaldeans were cruel conquerors. God says by his prophet, -- "I was but a little displeased, and they helped forward the affliction." Not only did they carry them away from their temple, their country, and their homes, but they made a mock of their sorrows. When they saw them sit down to shed bitter tears by the rivers of Babylon, they demanded mirth and a song, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

So is it with the world and the captive Christian. There are times when the world does not mock at the Christian. Often the Christian is filled with so strange a joy that the world wonders in silence. Often there is a meek and quiet spirit in the Christian, which disarms opposition. The soft answer turneth away wrath; and his very enemies are forced to be at peace with him. But stop till the Christian's day of darkness comes -- stop till sin and unbelief have brought him into captivity -- stop till he is shut out from Zion, and carried afar off, and sits and weeps; then will the cruel world help forward the affliction -- then will they ask for mirth and song; and when they see the bitter tear trickling down the cheek, they will ask with savage mockery, "Where is your Psalm singing now?" "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." Even Christ felt this bitterness when he hung upon the cross.

  1. The Christian cannot sing in captivity. So it was with ancient Israel. They were peculiarly attached to the sweet songs of Zion. They reminded them of the times of David and Solomon -- when the temple was built, and Israel was in its greatest glory. They reminded them, above all, of their God, of their temple, and the services of the sanctuary. Three times a year they came up from the country in companies, singing these sweet songs of Zion -- lifting their eyes to the hills whence came their help. But now, when they were in captivity, they hanged their harps upon the willows; and when their cruel spoilers demanded mirth and a song, they said: "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" So is it with the believer in darkness. He hangs his harp upon the willows, and cannot sing the song of the Lord. Every believer has got a harp. Every heart that has been made new is turned into a harp of praise. The mouth is filled with laughter -- the tongue with most divine melody. Every true Christian loves praise -- the holiest Christians love it most. But when the believer falls into sin and darkness, his harp is on the willows, and lie cannot sing the Lord's song, for lie is in a strange land.
  2. He loses all sense of pardon. It is the sense of pardon that gives its sweetest tones to the song of the Christian. But when a believer is in captivity he loses this sweet sense of forgiveness, and therefore cannot sing.
  3. He loses all sense of the presence of God. It is the sweet presence of God with, the soul that makes the believer sing. But when that presence is away, the Lord's house is but a howling wilderness; and you say, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
  4. He loses sight of the heavenly Canaan. The sight of the everlasting hills, draws forth the heavenly melodies of the believing soul. But when a believer sins, and is carried away captive, he loses this hope of glory. He sits and weeps, -- he hangs his harp upon the willows, and cannot sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
  5. The believer in darkness still remembers Zion, and prefers it above his chief joy. He often finds, when he has fallen into sin and captivity, that he has fallen among worldly delights and worldly friends. A thousand pleasures tempt him to take up his rest here; but if he be a true child of Zion he will never settle down in a strange land. He will look over all the pleasures of the world and the pleasures of sin, and say, "A day in thy courts is better than a thousand" - - "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning."

--Condensed from Robert Murray M'Cheyne, 1813-1843.

Verse 1-2. The Psalm is universally admired. Indeed, nothing can be more exquisitely beautiful. It is written in a strain of sensibility that must touch every soul that is capable of feeling. It is remarkable that Dr. Watts, in his excellent versification, has omitted it. He has indeed some verses upon it in his Lyrics; and many others have written on this ode. We have seen more than ten productions of this kind; the last, and perhaps the best, of which is Lord Byron's. But who is satisfied with any of these attempts? Thus it begins: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." These rivers were probably some of the streams branching off from the Euphrates and Tigris. Here it is commonly supposed these captive Jews were placed by their task masters, to preserve or repair the water works. But is it improper to conjecture that the Psalmist refers to their being here; not constantly, but occasionally; not by compulsion, but choice? Hither I imagine their retiring, to unbend their oppressed minds in solitude. "Come", said one of these pious Jews to another, "come, let us for a while go forth, from this vanity and vileness. Let us assemble together by ourselves under the refreshing shade of the willows by the watercourses. And let us take our harps with us, and solace ourselves with some of the songs of Zion." But as soon as they arrive, and begin to touch the chords, the notes -- such is the power of association -- awaken the memory of their former privileges and pleasures. And, over whelmed with grief, they sit down on the grass; and weep when they remember Zion; their dejected looks, averted from each other, seeming to say, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." But what do they with their harps? The voice of mirth is heard no more, and all the daughters of music are brought low. Melody is not in season to a distressed spirit. "Is any afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing Psalms." "As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart." They did not, however, break them to pieces, or throw them into the stream -- but hanged them up only. They hoped that what they could not use at present they might be able to resume as some happier period. To be cast down is not to be destroyed. Distress is not despondency.

"Beware of deperated steps; the darkest day
Live till to-morrow, will have passed away."

"We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof." Let us pass from the Jew to the Christian in his Spritiual Sorrows. He who preach well, says Luther, must distinguish well. It is peculiarly necessary to discriminate, when we enter upon the present subject. For all the sorrows of the Christian are not of the same kind or descent. Let us consider four sources of his moral sadness.

  1. The first will be physical.
  2. The second will be criminal.
  3. The third will be intellectual.
  4. The fourth will be pious.

--William Jay in "The Christian Contemplated."


Verse 1.

  1. A duty once the source of joy: "remember Zion."
  2. Circumstances which make the remembrance sorrowful.
  3. Peculiar persons who feel this joy or sorrow: "we."

Verse 1.

  1. Zion forsaken in prosperity. Its services neglected; its priests demoralized; the worship of Baal and of Ashtaroth preferred to the worship of the true God.
  2. Zion remembered in adversity. In Babylon more than in Jerusalem; on the banks of the Euphrates more than on the banks of Jordan; with tears when they might have remembered it with joy. "I spake unto thee in thy prosperity, and thou saidst, I will not hear." "Lord, in trouble they have visited thee. They poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them." --G. R.